Do we want a car to visit Philadelphia?
September 19, 2010 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Do we need a car for a four day visit to Philadelphia?

We're going to Philly for four days in October. We can fly or we can drive. The cost/time ratio is not enough to make the decision.

Most of what we want to see is on the Phlash route. Wissahickon gorge for hiking, the Mutter museum, and the Contemporary art museum look difficult to get to without driving. We'd have to completely skip Valley Forge if we flew.

The multiple train / trolley / subway / bus thing is so confusing, we're tempted to just drive. Then, of course, we'd have to deal with traffic and parking if we drove.

Take the car or leave it?
posted by arabelladragon to Travel & Transportation around Philadelphia, PA (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would drive just in case you do decide to go out to Valley Forge, or somewhere else outside of the downtown area. The season will be beautiful and you might really enjoy a drive o see the leaves. Getting to Wissahickon is easier with a car.

Parking costs money, but the hassle of unreliable public transportation isn't worth it. It takes time and patience and luck.

I lived in Center City with a car and now I am in the suburbs. The trains are a pain in the ass as I discovered when I commuted to work.

Full disclosure: I am a transplanted Texan and I prefer to drive even to Manhattan, so take my advice for what it is.
posted by vincele at 3:50 PM on September 19, 2010

Best answer: Well, that depends on how much you want to do Valley Forge. If it's not a huge deal: Definitely skip the car. Philly's very compact and walkable, but parking is expensive and driving is very annoying. You'll probably spend as much time trying to find a parking spot at any given destination as you would have just walking over. Again, ignoring the Wissahickon part, I'd point out that I know very, very few people in Philly who own cars, and those that do, never drive them into/around Center City or University City (the part with Penn and Drexel, where the Contemporary Art museum is); if you're remotely close to the Phlash route, a car will definitely be a lot of hassle for not a lot of use.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:50 PM on September 19, 2010

You actually can get to Valley Forge by bus (the 125 or 139), and Wissahickon too (a bit far for walking to/from, about 5 miles from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is itself about 2 miles from City Hall). And the Mütter and ICA are both in Center City or University City, off the main transit routes, along with the rest of the parts of the city you likely want to visit.

That said, I think taking the car is a tossup. I don't mind SEPTA—I use it daily—but it's certainly not a thrilling, or even often good, experience. But, parking will suck: expensive if you park in garages/lots, hard-to-find with draconian ticketing on the street. Depending on where you're staying, you could probably walk most places with a few bus/PHLASH rides and then take the car to Valley Forge and Wissahickon. And, honestly, you'd probably come out way ahead on cost if you drove if your profile location is current.

PM me if you have questions about SEPTA—it can seem confusing, but isn't really once you look at it a few times.

And don't miss Eastern State Penitentiary. It'll be appropriately creepy in October; just make sure to do the real tour (9-5 during the day) and not the hokey haunted house in the evening, unless you're into that sort of thing.
posted by The Michael The at 3:52 PM on September 19, 2010

Important addendum: I have the walkability standard of someone who's spent the past ten years exclusively in pedestrian-friendly urban areas. The only part of SEPTA that I'd really consider consistently unreliable are certain bus routes and of course the trolleys, but the trolley-badness is generally either A) west of 40th street (eg, west of your stop for the museum) or B) limited to one line, which won't be relevant here because any trolley would do. Or you could take the Market-Frankford line. I know it's annoying having all these transit options, but I have the opposite biase from vincele: I hate driving, and that's one reason I like Philly.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:54 PM on September 19, 2010

Mutter Museum isn't far from the trolley. I wouldn't call ICA difficult to get to. I don't know anything about the gorge, but it seems like the only thing you'd need a car to get to (but I also dont know).

Traffic won't be your problem, parking will be. It's almost New York -expensive in Philly.

Could you not rent a car to go to Valley Forge for the one day you actually need a car?
posted by micawber at 3:54 PM on September 19, 2010

Best answer: Where are you staying? The ICA is right off the El, the Mutter less so but still within pretty easy walking distance. If you are looking at maps, for a sense of distance Market St is about two miles from river to river. I don't mind all the SEPTA complications, but I did grow up with them. As long as you aren't going from one suburban spot to another, they aren't so bad. Parking in most of center city is an enormous hassle but it is possible to park a little outside the area for free on the street.
posted by sepviva at 4:01 PM on September 19, 2010

There is more than enough to keep you busy walking around Center City for a few days. Depending where you are staying, the Mutter is accessible by foot/public transport. Maybe rent a car for the day to go to Valley Forge.

Quite honestly, given the hassle of driving into Philly, navigating the one-way system, locating parking, etc., you might as well walk and use the public transport (SEPTA). It does look intimidating but is reasonably logical. Get some bags of tokens in advance.

There have been previous 'what to do in Philly' AskMe threads, you could sort through these.
posted by carter at 5:02 PM on September 19, 2010

The Mutter Museum is easy to get to, even walkable depending on where you'd be coming from. ICA (Contemporary Art) is very easy to get to by public transit. Don't be put off by what might seem confusing. There are only a few basic transit lines and if someone gave you a five minute orientation, you would probably feel very comfortable with the idea. As for the Wissahickon gorge, I believe you can get pretty close to it by public transportation, although I've never done it. If everything else you want to see is either center city or the University area (ICA), this would be your only mini-adventure and might be do-able. This will also depend on where you're staying. If you'll be in a hotel right in the middle of center city, your itinerary doesn't look difficult.

For driving, I agree with the comments about traffic and parking. This would depend on your experience with city driving and tolerance for narrow streets, finding parking, etc. I'm in the city every day but don't drive there much. I'm not a very city-savvy driver and my biggest issue is finding parking. I end up paying a fortune for an indoor garage because I'm not patient enough, or confident enough, to find a spot where I can parallel park. So this would depend on how you feel about city traffic.
posted by daikon at 5:03 PM on September 19, 2010

Oh and as The Michael The says, the parking enforcement is very, uhm, efficient. You don't want to be thinking of the car on the meter all the time you are gazing at Renoirs.

Parking downtown probably costs about $16-$20/day? But I never use it. Others may have more info.
posted by carter at 5:08 PM on September 19, 2010

FWIW, one of the more useful things to realize about central Philly geography, is the the main east-west street is Market Street, and below and to the north of this street there is (a) an underground mall that is blocks long, and (b) a large parallel underground tunnel through which the trolley/subway (green line), the elevated rail ('Market Frankford line', the blue line), and various regional/suburban lines all run next to each other and stop. The biggest stations are probably 15th street, and also the ones under City Hall that connect to the north-south lines.

Not sure where you are staying, but if you can orient to this, it's very useful.
posted by carter at 5:16 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I sold my car before moving from Missouri to Philly, and was kicking myself daily until I bought another one five years later.

If everything you're doing is in Center City, then it's all walkable. And the notes above about parking are spot-on during business hours and weekend nights in Center City. Outside of CC, if you can parallel park (on both sides), you'll have no problem finding on-street parking if you're willing to walk two or three blocks. If everything you're doing is near the subway, or near the El, or near the Girard and Baltimore trolleys, then you're fine.

But, bus service in Philly is the shittiest I've ever experienced ever in my whole life, ever. Outside of a couple routes, it cannot be relied upon ever. And even those routes that are mostly reliable will leave you stranded on occasion. I wouldn't wish a regular SEPTA bus commute on anyone.

The Mutter museum is walkable from anyplace in Center City. I regularly walked there. And parking in that vicinity is hell. West Philly is really easy to get to on the El, and then you can walk the rest of the way from there. However, when I say "you can walk", I'm talking about walking easily 1-2 miles. There were days in college that I walked upward of 10 miles.

But, if you're leaving the confines of Center and University cities, you're going to want a vehicle. Many natives do without; but, everybody I know who lives in South, North, or Northeast Philly, who can afford it, has a car.

Personally, I'd take the car. Assuming you're a confident driver and parallel parker. (If you're not, people will honk, shout, and curse you into mortification while you attempt to park. The streets are not wide enough for people to pass while somebody's parking. And you'll wind up paying $12 for 2 hours of parking because of the stress.)
posted by Netzapper at 5:22 PM on September 19, 2010

i have lived in philly for almost 10 years, and i wish almost daily that i had a car. if you're saying in center city and doing only touristy things that are very close to phlash, then you don't need the car. but if you really want to do valley forge or anything outside of the city, then you need the car. HOWEVER, driving in this city, as a new-to-the-city driver, and as a tourist (as my father can attest) is VERY STRESSFUL. most of the streets are super narrow, with cars parked on one or both sides. the other drivers are asshats. the obeyance of the rules of the road are questionable at best. the parking rules are posted, but they're confusing, and if you don't adhere to them, a ticket will be on you very fast. so, if you decide you don't want to go to valley forge, but you want to do something outside the phlash's route, just pay for a cab. $10 both ways, and you've saved yourself the headache and rage that comes with philly driving as a newbie.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:20 PM on September 19, 2010

Mutter and ICA are both easy by public transit. I think in theory you can get to the Wissahickon by taking one of the regional rail trains, but I never did it when I lived in Philly so I don't know.

But Philadelphia is very walkable -- and you're going at probably the best time of year for that (cool but not cold temperatures, not much rain) so if you don't want the headache of figuring out an unfamiliar public transit system, you don't have to. (Take this with a grain of salt, though; I like walking more than lots of people.)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:39 PM on September 19, 2010

You should have no trouble getting to nearly everything you listed (including the Mutter) with public transport, walking, or a short cab ride. Phlash or even one of the trolley tours should hit a large portion of what you want to see.

As others have mentioned, anything outside of center city/university city would likely require a car. The train from the airport is reliable and cheaper than a cab ($7-8 vs $25+). There are several car rental agencies with offices in center city (though I think their weekend hours aren't particularly accommodating).

All else being equal, I would take the car, but plan to leave it in a garage near the hotel while touring in center city. Although you could certainly fill four days leisurely exploring center city, there is a lot of great stuff nearby. On our last trip we rented a car for two days and were able to see the Barnes Foundation and make it to the shore (Cape May) among other things.

(I could also be convinced to choose the fly-in option -- but that would be motivated by wanting more of of the urban adventure feel gained by leaving the car at home. If that resonates with you it may be a consideration.)
posted by nuffsaid at 7:39 PM on September 19, 2010

It's not New York, but Public Transportation works well in Philly. It's a very small town if you're planning to stay in Center City. You could see the museums at Penn, walk to the Mutter, get a late lunch in Chinatown check out the Fabric Museum and Space 1026, gawk at the Liberty Bell, and putter around the boutiques and cobblestone streets of Old City before dinner. I've done it. And that takes your from West Philadelphia to the easternmost point (although it's all pretty close to Market Street.) You'll still have time to sneak into a hotel pool or two.

South Street is also highly walkable and I love Aids Thrift and you'll probably want to check out the Magic Garden. The Art Museum is pretty great, worth at least half a day on it's own - it's slightly more of a walk, but it's right near the Franklyn Institute.

SEPTA regional Rail is great - it only runs about once an hour but it's fast, clean and cheap - not as fast and clean as DC's Metro but pretty nice. Fairmont Park (Wissahickon Gorge?) is pretty easy to get to by rail - I'm not sure if you would get off at East Falls, or somewhere else, but you could also just walk straight up along the river from the Art Museum. It's a nice walk. Chestnut Hill and Mount Airey - neighborhoods of tree lined cobblestone streets with old mansions near Fairmont Park - are also rail accessible.

The only things that I can think of that are far flung are the Barnes Collection and the different arboretums (Philly has some great ones) but even those are reachable by regional rail and bus. Another interesting sight that I haven't been to yet is the Wagner Free Institute of Science is near the Cecil B Moore metro stop. Northern Liberties and Fishtown are a little far from the train, but they are walkable from Old City on a nice day - and there are plenty of cute streets with tiny houses to explore.

Have fun!
posted by ladypants at 9:47 PM on September 19, 2010

I would drive. I live close enough to drive and I normally do, but one time I took the train (Amtrak) up and I ended up annoyed with myself. It was not convenient at all to get around, and I ended up not exploring as much as I wanted to on that occasion - and I felt totally not spontaneous.

I don't find parking to be a terrible hassle there, but I am accustomed to city parking, and while I hate paying for parking in general the prices in Philly are not out of line.

Do keep in mind that your hotel probably charges an extra $30 or so a day for parking, so factor that in to your expenses.
posted by mrs. taters at 7:07 AM on September 20, 2010

Response by poster: We wound up driving. We found it charming to see how similar Philly is to Pittsburgh when it comes to road signs and drivers. You folks just need a few more hills and then we'll feel right at home.

It was very useful to realize that the distance between the two rivers was only two miles. We stayed on the center square and walked everywhere we wanted to.

The Mutter made the trip.

The hotel wound up charging $42/day for parking but room + parking came in at a reasonable total price.
posted by arabelladragon at 4:43 PM on October 20, 2010

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